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Chapter 42: Kara

The two physicians rubbed their eyes as they hurried across the courtyard, following the retreating figure of one of Saher's servants who led with a torch, to the house where Kara lay in pain. She had begun having her birth pains, and there was no time to lose. Because this was a first child, and likely a member of Saher's family, Atthis sent the servant on to wake Spidios to supervise the birth.

The contractions were already well advanced by the time they reached her bedside, and she was bleeding. Atthis did her best to quiet her, but the birth was proceeding very rapidly, and painfully. By the time Spidios reached the sickroom, the infant was already partly expelled, and what Atthis had come to expect from the many midwiving experiences in her past was completely awry. Instead of the sleek intact infant emerging from the womb, there was a confusing mass that appeared to be an incompletely closed skull, and the tiny face, when she inspected it, betrayed a large opening where the nose and cheek should be. The baby was hideously deformed, and from her initial rapid inspection, did not appear to be moving.

"Attend the woman," Spidios spoke quietly and urgently, reaching for the slick form of the infant and easing the body onto the bed. "Heklitis, help me here to pull, just the slightest… Madam, one more deep breath and push, and this will all be over." Kara obliged with a noisy gasp and bore down, and the legs of the child now came free. "Tie that off now, quickly, Heklitis. Hold still now, please, this will not take long." He had now taken charge, and Heklitis tied off the umbilicus rapidly with thread, and held the cord up to his master to cut it. As soon as this was done, Spidios took a length of linen and wrapped the infant completely, and left them.

"Where - where has he gone?" Kara asked. Atthis and Heklitis exchanged glances, then Heklitis spoke. "The child is dead, Kara. We are very sorry about it, but you should be assured that Saher will continue to take care of you in the same manner as he has so far, for as long as you wish."

"Dead? The baby is dead? But - I could feel it move, it was alive in me!" she said in a small voice.

"It may have been, but it died as it was being born, that is why it came so rapidly." They each held one of Kara's hands, and gazed calmly into her worried eyes.

"That is so sad, so sad…" she said, again her voice small and weak.

"Take something to drink. This is a great ordeal," said Atthis, and gave her a cup. "And let me wash you up so that you can rest more comfortably. Heklitis was tempted to follow his master from the room, but stayed put, in part because he knew that Atthis had been profoundly shaken by what she had seen - he knew that his presence here would comfort her as she occupied herself comforting the patient. He sat, and trimmed the lamp that had illumined the sickroom so harshly, and the light dimmed. The night grew quiet. Dawn was still hours away.

Time passed, and Heklitis sagged in his chair. Eventually, Atthis motioned for Heklitis to return to bed, and he left the room. Upon leaving, he found Spidios waiting for him. "Was the child dead?"

"He is now. He was inviable, and would have lived perhaps a night in that condition. Best for me to look after such details. What did you tell her?"

"I told her he was born dead."

"Good."

"What is it causes that deformity, Master? That I have not seen, nor has Atthis."

"You don't know?"

"I would not ask otherwise."

"Sometimes, drunkenness in the mother when the child is growing in the womb. Or strong drugs. Most often, however… incest."

"Incest?"

"When the patient is rested, there is something we need to do to ascertain what has happened."

"Incest?" Heklitis found himself once again deeply confused. How could this woman and Saheris be related?

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Despite his exhaustion and interrupted sleep, Heklitis could not rest. Once again, his thoughts returned to his first arrival at Maduc, and the sleepless night he spent in this very house, this same room, after he had met Saher and his wild, beautiful daughter. He had tossed and turned, uncertain of himself and how well he would do in this foreign land, sick with loneliness for his fellows in Eleusis and their easy camaraderie, and paused as he heard a low sound that might have been a door opening, a footstep in the hall.

"Hello?" he had called. Silence. Again, some indefinable, furtive movement, and he sat up to listen more carefully, to identify the subtle sound. Suddenly, there was the sound… a whisper.

"Are you awake?"

"Who is there?"

"It is I, Sahera." And as soon as she had spoken she was beside him on the bed, startling him so completely that his heart began to race with physical fear. "Don't be alarmed. I wanted to come and see if you were lonely."

"Lonely?" he asked. "Yes, you could say that. I miss my home." He could just barely see her in the profound gloom.

"Do you like me?" she asked then. "Do you want to stay here with my father and me? Or will you go home and leave me here to be lonely?" her voice was coy, low, plaintive, and though he had only just met her, he felt immediate suspicion.

"Lady - Sahera, I would like to stay here, and I will certainly adjust to this new place. But you should not be here in my room."

"Oh no, it is all right. My father lets me do all that I please. It pleased me to come here to see you."

"Pleased you? But it is not right."

"Of course it's right," she made a gesture that he felt in the air, rather than saw. "And it pleases me that you are so handsome." She leaned toward him then, and he felt her arms come around him, the silky smoothness of long, well-groomed black hair sliding from her shoulders onto his chest, and the smell of a strong perfume. He had never been embraced by a woman this way, and before he could think, he had responded as her lips sought his. He felt a thrill of desire, even as he was overwhelmed with a sense of dread that something terribly wrong was happening, that he should prevent. But she was in his arms, and kissing him, and before he could object or push her from him, her hands were busy pulling at the bedclothes, uncovering him. And as she moved on top of him, he became aroused, and -- how had it happened? Before he had time to speak or to object further, she had straddled him and began to thrust in earnest against him.

He could have pushed her away… but there was no will in him to do so. Half-suffocated by the wild hair that tumbled across his face, he strove against her with the newborn passion of a boy who had never before lain with a female. And before he could savor the moment of pleasure it had ended, and she had stolen from the room, wordlessly, and was swallowed by the darkness. His ears were roaring with the sound of his pounding blood, and if were not for the dissheveled bedclothes and the sudden cold of drying semen on his body, he would have thought it a vivid dream.

"Heklitis…" He sat up, startled.

"It's just me. You are so jumpy! Did you sleep?"

"Oh - Atthis. Bad dreams. Did you see Spidios?"

"No - he had left, he took the body of the child away to be burned, I assume?"

"Yes, he did not want the family to see the corpse."

"What was that - did he say?"

"It might have been caused by drink, or by a drug, but I do not believe he suspects these things. He suspects that the deformity was caused by incest."

"Incest!"

"We will learn more in the morning, I assume."

"It is morning! Look - dawn comes."

"What a wretched night. No sleep for either of us."

Her hand arrested him as he moved to rise. "No, let us stay until we're called. There is time enough for the rest of the unhappy revelations - and the Khan should not be disturbed early if there is nothing for him to do." She drew him back into the bed.

"This is true," he sighed. And despite his dark ruminations, Heklitis managed to close his eyes and rest until a knock came on the door summoning them to meet their master and the Khan.

Atthis was requested to bring Kara, if she was able to move about, to the Khan's study, and to meet Spidios and the Khan as soon as she was able to come. By the time she arrived with Kara, now able to walk, though slowly and with some hesitation, the old Khan was in his accustomed seat in the study, and Heklitis had found Saheris and retrieved him from the stables where he had been preparing for a morning ride. Saheris looked flustered, and not a little angry. Atthis found that almost every time she saw Saheris, he was either angry, or else consumed by some private amusement that caused him to laugh uproariously. There was almost never a sober or quiet Saheris to be seen.

"Ah, please come in. I hope, Lady, you can bear to stand for a few minutes longer for there is something important I wish to ascertain," Spidios began without preamble. "Would you step over here next to the young Khan?" And she did so, turning to face the trio of physicians and the old Khan, who sad silently at his desk.

"As you can see, Khan, they are of a height. Also, if you observe, the resemblance. Why does it so frequently take a stranger to remark resemblances, when amongst family they go unnoticed?" Heklitis looked from the scowling Saheris to the woman at his side, and compared the two. Certainly, if they were not indeed relatives, they looked enough alike to be - brother and sister, though separated by an age. But surely, she was too old to have been mothered by Sahera… before he could form a question, Kara spoke.

"Excuse me, Khan, but what is this about?"

"Lady," replied Spidios before Saher could reply, "what can you tell us of your parentage?"

Kara replied immediately. "I came from Ankra, I was told that I was a bastard of the Alans in one of their invasions after the revolt against the Khan, and that my mother had perished giving birth. I was raised in the summer palace of the Khan by the chiefest of the kitchen servants, who could not bear children. That is how I became familiar with Arrus, in the household of the Khan in the south. When he returned to Maduc, I went also, but since I had no family, and he could not sustain me…"

"Yes, yes," Spidios soothed, "it is the same for so many women without family. And can you tell me what you believe your age to be?"

"Three and thirty, and that is quite certain, since my mother - my adoptive mother - has had me since my birth." Heklitis put a hand over his mouth.

"And did your mother - your adoptive mother - know of any other births that occurred in Ankra at the time of yours?"

"Yes," she replied, her voice clear in the now silent room. "The Queen had given birth as well, to a boy. That was when she betrayed the Khan."

"Twins," Spidios said the single word, and it hung in the air.

Saher spoke then. "Are you saying - this is - Vira's daughter?"

"Are these two not alike enough to be aunt and nephew?" And Heklitis found himself thinking - and is she not alike enough to be to be my twin? But the words were not spoken.

Saheris interrupted then. "What has this to do with - what has happened to the baby?"

"Yes, what has happened to the baby, Spidios?" Saher echoed.

"The baby was born dead, deformed," Spidios replied. "Which led me to suspect that the parents were related, for such misfortune does not happen so flagrantly when both parents are otherwise healthy. Inbreeding causes unpredictable outcomes at birth."

Without a further word, Saheris bolted from the room. Heklitis moved toward the door to pursue, but Saher raised a hand. "Leave the boy go - he has had too many shocks of late."

"And as for you, young woman," Saher's manner toward Kara had changed, slightly. "I hope you will now accept my hospitality not as charity but as justice, from a family you never knew you had. Come and give an old man a kiss and know you at least have a father left."

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When I fled Saher's study, I went straight to the stable and seized my mare by the reins. I spurred her away from the town, into a violent gallop, I did not heed where, for I seemed as blind, then. Had anyone stepped into my path, I would gladly have knocked him down. Kara - my own blood! And my first born child, dead, of a deformity too hideous to be seen. I felt little but a directionless anger, a formless confusion that drove me away from all, and into a solitude which seemed still far too cloying. Kara - my aunt! But I had known how much she resembled Sahera, I had dwelt on this fact in numberless fantasies after my remove to Maeotis, and sought in vain for another woman whom I could take that would embody just that mix of qualities that would bring my fantasy back into flesh for me. As I considered, I realized that it was this that drew me to Atthis - for she had come closest to matching my demanding vision, which consumed me with a desire that I did not have for other women. It was my good fortune that I found in Ildico some of this wild, dark intensity, and responded to it. It was as though this mystique were air itself which I must breathe, for the fantasy of my childhood ruled me completely, and would not depart from me until I satisfied myself with someone who in some way satisfied the vision.

I had not seen Kara since I had left Maduc the previous fall; at Saher's insistence. Seeing her again was a shock to me, and brought back my fading vision of Sahera freshly to my senses once again. I dismounted from my horse and sat against a tree, and became lost in reverie of my stolen past, evoked by the uncanny double who had come across my path. I would have to find some way to deal with this - to deal with myself.

In former times, I could rely upon Sahelis to chase me to ground and cajole me back out of my moods and into company again. But Sahelis would not be coming this time. I felt more alone than I had ever felt, stranded in the midst of a turmoil I could not assuage, unable to find a place of safety or confidence. In truth, I was afraid, for this was unlike battle, or the frank threat of death -- this obsession, I could not see nor name, I could not surround nor defeat. It was an old and subtle enemy, and had haunted so many of my nights that I had long ago lost count. And what seemed so bizarre to me, now, was that this image I most desired, most resembled myself.

To Saheris's surprise, he found Heklitis waiting for him when he brought his mare, now drooping from the run, back to the stable.

"Are you watching for me now?" he remarked. Despite the irony in his words, Saheris was glad to see Heklitis, and even considered confiding in him after his reverie in the woods.

"In a way. Needless to say, the Khan is concerned about you."

"And you are concerned about me too?" Saheris pulled the saddle from the sweating horse and began to comb her down.

"Yes, I am."

"I am touched."

"You are a father who lost a child today, Saheris. And a nephew who discovered an aunt. These are heavy tidings. If these things had occurred to me all in a day I think I would be feeling quite confused right now."

"Yes, you could say confused, Heklitis. A bit. But I am a king, and kings do not stay confused for long."

"No, sometimes they stay confused longer." Heklitis looked closely at Saheris, who busied himself currying the neck of his mare and avoided the gaze.

"So what is this great concern, Heklitis? Why don't you just get it out of your mouth and be done?"

"Did you know that Kara was the sister of Sahera when you sought her?"

"What are you - crazed?" Saheris threw down the comb and stood facing him, hands on hips.

"How did you meet her?"

"She was Arrus's whore! I followed him to her! Why don't you ask Arrus if he knew he was bedding Sahera's sister? That is a more pertinent question."

"I have done. He knew she had come from Ankra, and knew her as a younger woman, and of course, had remarked on her appearance, but it was not known that Vira had -- another daughter."

"And a son too, Spidios said. There were twins."

"He had not known of this, either," Heklitis replied.

"And Saher only told me of the son these two nights past. And what became of him - do we know? How little I know, and myself now Khan." He narrowed his eyes and peered at Heklitis. "For all I know, the healers could have sent him back to Bithynia, circumcised and in disguise as a Greek Jew… for all that we are remarking upon resemblances today… how much do you know of your parentage, Heklitis? For all I know - you could be him."

Heklitis did not blink as he returned Saheris's gaze.

"Do you know who your parents are, Heklitis?" Saheris persisted.

"I know who my mother was," he replied quietly.

"And who was your mother?"

"Vira Al Alcal," Heklitis said, the name a whisper.

"Just so," Saheris said, pleased with himself. "I am not so blind as I thought I was this morning, then. And this was Saher's secret that he decided I could not know, is that it?"

"No! Saher does not know! And unless he comes upon the knowledge himself -- as, I presume, you did -- it must remain this way."

"He does not know? He sat this morning and saw Kara and myself side by side, and you there with us, and did not see?"

"You did not see it yourself until today, did you?"

Saheris shook his head, some hidden tension relieved in him for the first time. "No… that is true. But when Spidios said there were twins, and seeing you and she in the same room, when I considered it later, it was obvious."

"Perhaps it is. But he has been told these many years that the son is safely in service to a kind lord far from the risk of war, and lives a scholar's life. That is all he need know, my master tells me, unless…"

"…unless he loses his sons," Saheris finished the sentence for him. "This makes a strange kind of sense, even to one as confused as I."

"Yes, Saheris. Unless he loses his sons."

"That would be a compassionate thing to do, though I doubt he would appreciate the surprise. As I did not appreciate the surprise -- but if you had been told to keep your counsel on it, then I suppose I understand that too."

"I only just learned of this, Saheris, when you were confined in Maeotis."

Saheris let out a loud laugh. "And what led to this revelation at that particular time?"

Heklitis lowered his eyes. "Saheris…"

"Come now, Heklitis. I have suffered much today in discovering I bedded my own aunt and as a result, fathered a monster. There couldn't be a darker or more embarrassing secret that you would withhold from me on a day like today."

"Very well then… while I can't say I fathered any monsters…" he hesitated. "I have believed all of these years living in Saher's household, that I was your father."

"My - what? But then - - I knew you looked after my mother, but you had…" The look on Saheris's face was remarkable -- unreadable. "Tell me how it happened," he replied. "Please."

"Why should this be of importance to you?" Heklitis was unnerved by his sudden intense curiosity, and, something more - in Saheris' s manner.

"It just is."

He shook his head. "This is as much as I can tell you - and, of course, as Saher had already told you, you are the son of Bellianus, which is all too clear now… but it was not, then…"

"Tell me about her, Heklitis. Tell me how she seduced you - she did seduce you."

Heklitis regarded Saheris with a kind of horror, then, and rose. "I have to get out of this stable. If there is more I think I can say, let me consider it. We can talk after dinner."

"Curse you, Heklitis, for your modesties -- after dinner then," and Saheris stalked out, freshly angered.

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